By Jennifer Siegel
The outlines of the Double Cross system, through which the British war office in World War II coordinated an intricate deception campaign, have been known for 40 years. The details have taken longer to emerge, trickling out through a series of published memoirs and the slow but steady declassification of documents by the British government. In 1972, John Masterman, who chaired the committee running the operation, defied the British censors and published what had been originally written, at the end of World War II, as a highly classified report. Masterman’s “The Double-Cross System” revealed that, through ingenious skill, efficient management and more than a little luck, the British intelligence organizations in World War II had completely dominated the “humint” (human intelligence) competition with their German counterparts.
Many other books about the Double Cross system followed Masterman’s revelatory work, with two more joining the ranks this month: Stephan Talty’s “Agent Garbo: The Brilliant, Eccentric Secret Agent Who Tricked Hitler and Saved D-Day” and Ben Macintyre’s “Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies.” While neither author offers much in the way of disclosures that will alter the available record, a story as good as that of the Double Cross system is worth retelling, and rereading, particularly when it is told well—as it often is by Messrs. Talty and Macintyre.
After the fall of France in 1940, German military intelligence, the Abwehr, found itself entirely surprised and unprepared when Britain vowed to fight on alone. Desperately in need of firsthand information about a country that Germany was suddenly preparing to invade, the Abwehr hastily shipped off to the British Isles a rather inept and untrained collection of misfit agents. The British discovered the German agents in quick succession, rounding them up and “turning” many of them against their Nazi masters. The agents’ codebooks and wireless sets were then used to transmit disinformation back to Germany and to help the British cryptanalysts break the enemy’s ciphers.
The initial wave of captured agents was joined by a series of “walk-ins” who volunteered their service as double agents for the Allied cause. These walk-ins proved the great stars of the system. The British created a committee—the Twenty Committee, so named because a double-cross, or XX, looked like the Roman numerals for 20—to coordinate the vast interdepartmental tasks that were necessary to keep the operation and its agents running smoothly. The information being passed on by different agents to the Germans had to correspond generally but not match so well as to suggest a common author. And the transmissions had to bear an element of truth—accurate enough to bolster the Germans’ confidence in the operatives but not so valuable that the tips would compromise the Allied effort or the Allies’ own intelligence sources.The undertaking was immense, and an immense success. Masterman himself wrote: “By means of the double-cross system we actively ran and controlled the German espionage system in this country.” On the day-to-day level, the Double Cross system of agents, handlers and strategists did much to drain and distract the German war effort. They kept the Germans off-balance, directing the enemy’s attention where it should not have been. Furthermore, the Abwehr, pleased with the seemingly valuable information coming from its agents, saw little need to dispatch more operatives to Britain—operatives who might have gone undetected and done serious damage by genuinely aiding German war planners.
There were other benefits of the Double Cross system: The questions that the Germans put to the turned agents provided the British with clear insights into the enemy’s interests and intentions. A request for information about Scotland’s coastal defenses, for instance, revealed German concerns about an Allied invasion of Norway, which would be launched from the United Kingdom’s northern territories. (Other questions about anchorages, docks and defenses at Pearl Harbor, clearly pointing toward an Axis attack, were ignored by the FBI when one of Britain’s star agents was temporarily—and disastrously—handled by the Americans.) And in a delicious twist, the expensive disinformation program was almost entirely underwritten by the ones being deceived: The Germans thought that the vast sums they were sending off to Britain were funding the efforts of their own agents and the sub-agents they purported to be running, but the money was instead landing in the coffers of British military intelligence.
Of the various double agents who staffed the system, it is without question the walk-ins—who were given evocative code names such as Treasure, Artist, Tricycle, Brutus, Garbo and Bronx—whose stories offer the most drama. Their deceptions played a crucial role in the success of the D-Day landings by misleading the Germans about the Allies’ intentions and capabilities. It is the riveting tales of these agents on which Ben Macintyre focuses, to full advantage, in “Double Cross.”
Mr. Macintyre, a writer for the Times of London, has in recent years made a cottage industry of World War II deception books with “Agent Zigzag” (2007) and “Operation Mincemeat” (2010). In “Double Cross,” he draws colorful portraits of the major figures running the system, including John Masterman and his superior officer, Thomas Argyll Robertson, nicknamed “Tar.” As Mr. Macintyre relates, Tar “knew better than anyone else in British intelligence how to spot a lie, and therefore how to tell one.” We also learn about the far less heralded, often inventive, and always slightly unusual men and women who served as handlers, tending the temperamental double agents.
But Mr. Macintyre relishes, above all, the oddball cast of characters who make up his roster of D-Day spies. These include Dusko Popov, aka Tricycle, the playboy, profligate, valiant Serb who threw himself into the jaws of the enemy (or at least the Abwehr in Madrid) countless times to maintain his cover as a German agent and who, in Mr. Macintyre’s eyes, is the key to the success of the Double Cross system writ large. There was Roman Czerniawski, aka Brutus, a Polish patriot and counterintelligence officer who became a French partisan, then a German agent, then a double agent for the British; but loyalty to the idea of Poland was Brutus’s only true allegiance.
Elvira de la Fuente Chaudoir, aka Bronx, was a Peruvian, French-raised “Lesbian” (British intelligence insistently capitalized the word, as if she were a native of Lesbos), a bored socialite with a gambling problem who provided the Germans with gossip that she supposedly heard in drawing rooms and clubs—uttered by men she had never met. Lily Sergeyev, aka Treasure, was a volatile, vivacious Russian-born Frenchwoman obsessed with her lap dog and willing to wreck the whole operation as revenge for his untimely death.
Juan Pujol García, aka Garbo, is an especially interesting case and already the most famous of the crew. The Spaniard independently started his own disinformation campaign—feeding reports to the Germans about Britain while he sat in Lisbon, armed with only some maps and an English travel guide—before the Double Cross managers noticed him and brought him into the fold.
The entire operation was threatened in 1944 when Johnny Jebsen, aka Artist, was captured by the Gestapo. Jebsen, Popov’s best friend and fellow bon viveur, was an Abwehr officer until being recruited as a British spy. His interrogation by the Gestapo threatened to rip apart the intricate web of deception surrounding the Allies’ D-Day plans mere weeks before the invasion was set to be launched.
The mix of heroic and unsavory characters would tax a novelist’s imagination, and yet here they were, engaged in matters of life-or-death significance, with the course of world history hanging in the balance. Mr. Macintyre makes good use of the material. He knows how to let the high drama unfold on its own. Unfortunately, though, the book at times reads like twopenny pulp, replete with cringe-worthy phrasemaking. We’re told, for instance, that “the poultry farmer from Barcelona was getting all his ducks in a row,” and John Masterman’s interest in cricket prompts the author to bat around that game’s terminology ad nauseam. (Wait, it’s contagious!)
But as the book accelerates toward its climax—D-Day and the march toward Berlin—Mr. Macintyre wisely lets the story play out unencumbered by the overwrought writing that weighs down earlier chapters. Even though we know how D-Day turns out, it remains a thrilling tale. Operation Fortitude, the effort to deflect attention away from the beaches of Normandy in the months, weeks and days leading up to the landings, is one of the most suspenseful and often surprising elements in that story, and the Double Cross system was central to it.
Operation Fortitude is also the climactic moment in Mr. Talty’s book. “Agent Garbo” appears, at first glance, to be a work of lesser aspiration than “Double Cross,” having a narrower scope. Mr. Talty focuses on just one of the Double Cross agents—the industrious Juan Pujol García—and the team surrounding him. But, with less ground to cover, Mr. Talty gives us an appreciably richer picture not only of Pujol but also of an interwar period that could produce someone willing and able to undertake the duplicity required of a double agent. Along the way, the author captures the chilling realities of bloody battlefields, tense war rooms and besieged London.
Where Mr. Macintyre plays up a world of playboys, silly dogs, society girls and bumbling Abwehr officers, Mr. Talty takes a more astringent yet more satisfying approach. In “Agent Garbo,” we see an Abwehr that, while imperfect, “was adept at many areas of the spy game.” Its leaders may not have been as imaginative as the geniuses of the Double Cross system, but the Germans were efficient—and that efficiency could be dangerous. More important, it is never far from Mr. Talty’s mind that soldiers were dying and that, when D-Day came, as Winston Churchill mused, there would be “tides running red with their blood.”
Juan Pujol García, through his careful reports and those of the fictional sub-agents who populated his fabricated network, strove at first to persuade the Germans that the Allied invasion would come at the Pas de Calais, in northern France, across from Dover. Later, when the Germans began to suspect that the target was 250 miles to the southwest, in Normandy, he insisted that it was just a feint—the real invasion was yet to come (from the imaginary First U.S. Army Group) at the Pas de Calais. He was so convincing that vital German divisions were held in the northeast to meet a threat that would never materialize. The Germans went so far as to award him an Iron Cross, sure that he had fed them crucial information.
Even after the Normandy landings had begun and the beachhead was established, the German divisions to the east did not turn, until too late, toward the Allied servicemen who were slogging their way up from the beaches and fighting inch by inch through Normandy. Countless lives on both sides were saved. But decades later, when Pujol was brought to the American cemetery at Omaha Beach to mark these successes, he fell to his knees and wept, amid the sea of crosses with the occasional Star of David, saying: “I didn’t do enough.”
Mr. Talty’s book is elegantly crafted as it brings Pujol from a somewhat hapless youth through the turmoil of the Spanish Civil War, in which he served both sides and ended up loathing both. Pujol’s war experience in the 1930s, the author says, prepared the future spy for his later double life as agent Garbo. Mr. Talty champions his subject as “the linchpin in the plan to fool Hitler.” But regardless of whether that distinction should go to Garbo or to Tricycle, Artist or the other courageous players in Mr. Macintyre’s book, their collective contribution was critical to the Allied victory. These books, therefore, make an equally critical contribution to our appreciation of how that victory was achieved.
—Ms. Siegel is a history professor at Ohio State University.
A version of this article appeared July 28, 2012, on page C5 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Fooling the Enemy, One Spy at a Time.